07.04.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

“Freedom Shield” and Other Events of February-March 2024. Part Two: US-ROK Joint Exercises

US-ROK Joint Exercises

From March 4 to 14, 2024, the Armed Forces of the United States and the Republic of Korea conducted the annual joint exercise Freedom Shield.

This is a complex exercise involving many large and small maneuvers, so first it should be described the main points in which Freedom Shield 2024 differed from previous exercises.

The stated objective was to improve interoperability and enhance the ability of alliance forces to conduct joint operations.

The scale of the actual exercise is more than double that of last year’s.

A total of 48 joint tasks were practiced on land, at sea and in the air (including detection and destruction of North Korean cruise missiles, combined amphibious assault training, tactical training with live firing, joint air-to-air firing, air-to-ground target practice, combined aviation training at battalion level, etc.), as well as cyber operations. In addition, command field exercises based on computer modelling were conducted.

At the same time, according to the South Korean military, none of them were planned near the inter-Korean border.

Exercise scenarios involved responding to various security threats, including operations by DPRK nuclear forces. The allies, however, did not train in repelling a North Korean nuclear attack, and that scenario is expected to be included in their major joint exercise in August.

The exercise was monitored by representatives of 12 member states of the UN Command, including Australia, the UK, the Philippines and Thailand, as well as a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission monitoring the Korean Armistice.

Now it is time to move on to the most notable details of the maneuvers. On March 4, the Buddy Squadron began a five-day exercise at Osan Air Base, 60 kilometers south of Seoul: about 20 fighters, including South Korean F-15Ks and US F-16s, practiced defensive anti-air maneuvers. On the same day, March 4, the US and South Korean Air Forces took to the air an RC-135V Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft and an RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance UAV to monitor changes in North Korea and the movement of its military units.

On March 5, units of the Army Special Operations Command conducted a joint anti-terrorism exercise with police officers at a baseball stadium in Seoul to hone operational capabilities against terrorist attacks in crowded places. According to the scenario, armed terrorists took hostages at the stadium, demanded ransom and a helicopter to escape. Participants trained to eliminate terrorists, rescue hostages and defuse explosives planted by the militants.

On March 6, an exercise to repel possible terrorist attacks was held in Seoul’s Yeouido district. The training included a scenario in which an explosion occurs in a public space, terrorists infiltrate the building of the national broadcaster Korean Broadcasting System and take hostages. More than 360 servicemen from 16 military units, including the 52nd Infantry Division and the 1st Air Defense Brigade, as well as a police station and a fire brigade, took part in the exercise.

On the same day, the ROK Air Force conducted a training exercise called PISU (Korean for “dagger”, English for “Punish Immediately, Strongly, and Until the end”) involving F-15K fighters. This was the second maneuvers of this kind, the first having taken place in February. Their program involves practicing the detection and interception of DPRK cruise missiles.

On March 7, training firing against air and ground targets took place at a naval training field near the Yellow Sea, which, according to the maneuvers’ scenario, was positioned as a response to “fire provocations” and the launching of enemy cruise missiles. The exercise involved about 10 aircraft of various types – KF-16, FA-50, F-5 – which practiced launching AIM-9L air-to-air missiles (simulated cruise missile interception) and bombing with KGGB precision-guided munition (long-range artillery fire practice).

On March 8, the South Korean Air Force staged another team training exercise, a so-called “elephant walk” with 33 aircraft, including F-35A, KF-16, F-15K and F-4E stealth fighters.

From March 11 to 15, the ROK and the US conducted a joint airborne exercise involving about 1,400 troops and more than 40 helicopters and transport aircraft. The exercise took place in Inje County, Gangwon Province, and the cities of Gwangju, Seongnam, Yeoju and Icheon, Gyeonggi Province. According to the exercise scenario, Air Force special operations troops infiltrated the target areas with support from the 2nd Quick Response Division to provide a safe area to drop supplies from C-130H transport aircraft.

On the same dates, the US and ROK Air Forces conducted live-fire air maneuvers on the west coast. About 40 aircraft were involved, including South Korea’s F-35As, F-15Ks, F-4Es and US A-10s and F-16s. During the training, pilots practiced intercepting cruise missiles and striking long-range enemy artillery.

In addition, FS Tiger field exercises took place on the same dates, with special forces landing and infiltrating target sites, and transport aircraft delivering the necessary equipment and supplies. About 1,400 servicemen took part in the training, as well as aviation, including UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64E Apache, and CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

On March 13, the ROK Air Force conducted an exercise aimed at improving readiness to counter threats from North Korean cruise missiles and mobile missile systems, involving about 20 aircraft, including F-35A and F-15K fighter jets. According to the Air Force, pilots were trained in response procedures in various scenarios, such as enemy aircraft infiltration and cruise missile launches, through close coordination with the ground control and reporting center. The exercise involved fighter jets shooting down enemy aircraft and cruise missiles, as well as dropping guided bombs to destroy enemy missile transport launchers. The reconnaissance aircraft identified the location of air defense systems and the movement of missile launchers, and then relayed this information to the Main Air Defense Control Center. The latter relayed this information to the strike fighters already in the air in standby mode, with the F-35A and KF-16 striking the air defenses and the F-15K intercepting the enemy aircraft. In addition, the F-15Ks also practiced intercepting cruise missiles.

On the same day, March 13, 2024, ROK Defense Minister Shin Won-sik called on special operations troops to arm themselves with the capability to quickly eliminate the North Korean leadership if it starts a war against the South. “If Kim Jong-un starts a war, as a key unit of Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR), you must become the world’s strongest special operations unit to swiftly eliminate the enemy leadership,” he said.

In addition to the speech, the minister personally led a training “decapitation operation” involving a total of about 240 ROK and US troops, including the Navy’s Special Forces (UDT/SEAL), the Air Force’s Air Traffic Control Team (CCT) and the US Army’s 1st Special Forces Group. The training was aimed at strengthening operational capabilities to infiltrate key facilities in enemy territory in order to disrupt or paralyze the enemy’s command and control system. During the training, with a focus on creating realistic conditions, the special forces practiced special reconnaissance skills, firearms training, room clearing tactics, etc., which enhanced interoperability and improved the ability to conduct joint special operations.

Also on the same day, the US and ROK fleet commanders conducted exercises as part of the Navy’s Unified Command, which were said to be aimed at providing a joint defensive posture, strengthening the interoperability system and enhancing interoperability between the two countries’ fleets and Marine Corps forces.

On March 14, South Korea conducted a live-fire tank exercise 25 kilometers south of the inter-Korean border with US military engineers, formally after the end of the Freedom Shield. The week-long training at the Seungjin firearms training field involved 300 troops, K1A2 tanks and K21 armored vehicles, as well as M1150 breacher assault vehicles from the joint South Korea-US engineering unit. Tanks and armored personnel carriers fired on enemy targets while South Korean and US engineers removed obstacles to clear the way for troops to secure enemy positions.

Thus, by hypocritically saying that the Freedom Shield was not conducted close to the DPRK, Washington and Seoul fibbed a little. All the more so because on March 16-17, 2024, South Korea’s military conducted a major exercise in the area of Baekyeongdo and Yeonpyeongdo islands bordering the DPRK in the Yellow Sea. The exercise involved the Marine Corps rapid reaction force, the ROK Navy landing ship LST-II, MUH-1 Marineon helicopters, KAAV landing vehicles, and AH-64E Apache army attack helicopters. The maneuvers were aimed at practicing the rapid deployment of forces in case of provocations by North Korea ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections in April.

From March 11 to 22, ROK and US military personnel conducted a joint river crossing exercise on the Imjingang River near the city of Paju near the border with North Korea. A total of 470 troops from the ROK Army’s Fifth Armored Brigade and the Engineer Battalion of the US Second Infantry Division were mobilized to participate. Some 65 vehicles, including CH-47D Chinook helicopters, AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, K1E1 tanks and short-range surface-to-air missiles, were used. During the exercise, a 180-meter-long temporary bridge was built across the river, over which K1E1 tanks and personnel were ferried. This was reported in the media after the end of the Shield.

Read about the response to the exercise North of the 38th parallel in the next part of the digest.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences and Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook” 

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